It would be easy to walk right by the Photo Antiquities Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side without even noticing it and without ever going inside.
But that would be a huge mistake.
The storefront on East Ohio Street is unassuming and modest, but for photography buffs, history enthusiasts and admirers of super cool things, the museum, which preserves and displays photographs from the 19th century through the present, is a must-see.
This year is a particularly good time to pay a visit to the museum as it hosts “The Abraham Lincoln Photographic Exhibition,” the largest display of vintage original photographs of Lincoln “ever shown under one roof in the history of the United States,” according to Bruce Klein, the museum’s founder and chairman of the board.
The exhibit opened May 1 and will run through April 2018. Klein expects more than 10,000 visitors from all over the world to come view the show.
Klein, who founded Photo Antiquities, a 501(c)(3), in 1995, spent five years putting together the Lincoln exhibit.
“This is the largest project Photo Antiquities has done to date,” he said, although he has curated other sizable shows at his museum, including “Shantytown,” which showcased photos of Pittsburgh during the depression. “Shantytown” is on permanent display in the museum’s upstairs gallery.
The Lincoln exhibit displays about 260 unique pieces. In addition to many original vintage photographs of the 16th president — with and without his beard — are paintings, Lincoln’s life mask, an invitation to his inauguration, a program for his funeral service, letters and the last check Lincoln wrote before he was assassinated — a check he made out to himself for $800.
Also included in the exhibit are photos of Lincoln’s family, his cabinet and other associates and images from Lincoln’s two visits to Pittsburgh.
Many of the pieces are on loan to the museum, Klein said, and some have been purchased.
Klein is a native Pittsburgher and a lifelong photography enthusiast. In addition to Photo Antiquities, he runs Bernie’s Photo Center, a camera store that was started by his father in 1958. The Shadyside resident is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and has worked on various projects with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
The mission of Photo Antiquities, he said, is “preservation, education and presentation.” He founded his museum 22 years ago to fill what he saw was an educational gap in the region.
“There was no place for the public to see 19th-century photographs,” he said. “And it’s important to see them because if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going to.”
Photography has changed dramatically with the digital age, Klein said. People are printing fewer photos these days, and that is problematic.
The public is “losing history with digital photography,” he explained. “People are not printing, and the media they are storing their images on will not be readable in 100 years.”
On the other hand, he said, “if you have a glass negative from the 1800s, I could make you a print today. It’s a problem for the future because people will not have images to pass around. Photographs are a way to preserve history.”
He hopes that by viewing historical photos, more people will be inspired to print their images in an effort to preserve them.
To prepare for hosting the Lincoln exhibit, Photo Antiquities Museum applied for and received several grants that allowed it to complete renovations, including making the space ADA compliant.
Photo Antiquities is the only 19th-century photographic museum in the United States, according to Klein.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.